Don’t Rely on the Intangible

August 29, 2011

The other day (sometime between the quake and the hurricane), Livia Blackburne posted a blog on the anatomy of a death scene. It focused on a particular book, featuring a talking cat. She focused on the mechanics of the scene, the use of flashback, the rituals, etc. and argued they were effective at producing emotion. I thought her analysis was good, however, when I read the scene, where the cat dies, I thought it was flat. I didn’t care, and I wasn’t moved. I argued that instead of focusing on the details of the death, the author should invest his/her energies on creating love for the character, and that that love was more essential to achieving a sad death, than any other factor.

Liv agreed, in part, but suggested that she had been equally moved by death scenes she’d read as early as chapter one – how can this happen?

A fair point, really.

My guess would be transference. I’m speculating, obviously, but whenever I have a strong feeling for characters (or people I don’t know well), it’s usually transference. If I read about an old man dying, I think of my father; If I read about someone I can identify with, I think of myself… When this happens, I’m not actually feeling for the character (or the other, if you will), I’m feeling for the people who already occupy space in my heart, and projecting them into the other. When I’m sad at a strangers death, part of it is for them, granted, but most of my sadness comes from being forced to recall painful memories of deaths I’ve come to know, fear of deaths that are looming, and thoughts on my own mortality.

With writing, or any art, you can draw from the deep well of existing emotions – in fact, that may be a requirement. You can shortcut the many pages it takes to craft an amazing character, if you cleverly create a character that people will be forced (or at least likely) to relate to. It is very efficient, and extremely powerful, if you can pull it off.

As I mentioned above, the cat scene did nothing for me. It may be because I never owned a cat, or it may be that I’m just an asshole. Whatever the reason, I didn’t care, and therefore, if that alone was the story, the writer failed.

Of course that was not the entire story. There were another 90K (or so) words that I didn’t read. If the author used them effectively to build up that darn cat, with a few kind deeds, some suffering, some identifiable need, whatever, then I probably would have felt something. If I had grown to love him, or at least had sufficient opportunity to make the associations necessary for transference, I would have been moved (probably, I am a guy after all…) That is why, with my writing, I try to focus on making beloved characters – transference is too unreliable.

Janet Reid 8/3 Writing Contest

August 3, 2011

The Shark’s having another contest. Deadline for entry is 8/4 at noon. Rules and so forth can be found here – jetreidliterary.blogspot.com

Below, is my entry.  As always, random words are in bold.

~~~

It took most of Marlene’s energy gettin’ outta bed every mornin’. Whatever was left was spent keepin’ her head out the oven, and cleanin’ his house. Most days, she’d dust, but never get around to the vacuuming.

It was a Thursday, when she’d had enough. Maybe it was the fever, or maybe the gin, but when she heard that garage door open, and that same Jelly Roll Morton song echoed through the house, she shouted, “T-Bone! We’re through!”

He didn’t say a word, just got back in his truck, and rode off.

That’s how she tells it at least.

Inspiration Expiration

July 20, 2011

You always hear about writers who had a rough time, but made it. You hear about how J.K. spent months in a coffee shop, writing on napkins, before launching her media empire. You hear about how Steve and Kurt literally papered their walls with rejection slips, before landing their six figure deals. You hear these things, knowing full well they’re the exception not the rule, and they’re inspiring.

Then one day you wake up, and don’t have the energy to hump the dream anymore. You think, am I just wasting my time? Will it ever happen? Or maybe you don’t wake up, but your wife does, and she thinks you’ve spent enough time playing writer, and that it’s time to get a real job, like her ex, Doug, whom works at Citibank, a fact she found out at lunch with him the other day…

Unless you’re very lucky, you’re going to have that day, or more likely those days. They are the rule, not the exception. Should this not bring you comfort, know that discomfort leads to enlightenment, and enlightenment always leads to big cash payouts {see the Dalai Lama [he gets free hot dogs, with everything (or so I’ve heard)]}. So, write on, and you will get enlightenment, huge cash payouts, hot dogs, and, if nothing else, I hear the unexamined life is not worth living – Dr. Phil said that, I think.

(not so) Precious Moments

July 14, 2011

Everybody’s seen the youtube clip with the ordinary supermodel. The one where she shows up, looking like nothin’ special, and, through the miracle of a time lapse photography, transforms into something made of pure sex and chocolate. It’s all well and good on its own, girls could use a lil’ reality in terms of body image, but the problem is, like any other story, it’s complete shit. That, and it’s made my life hell.

I probablly wouldn’t mind it if I were in a different line of work, but being a wedding videographer’s hard enough without unrealistic client expectations. Take Jane (not her real name) for example. Jane is what some might call a Rubenesque vision, that is, if the vision includes pipe cleaners for hair and backne. Now, I can drop subtle hints about avoiding a backless dress, or I can suggest how a fuller veil would add an element of mystery, but since dress advice is not traditionally given by the “guy behind the Camcorder,” my opinions are always ignored.

You’d think that at least some loved one, a mother perhaps, would say, ‘You know Jane, spaghetti straps digging into your arm flesh isn’t exactly flattering. You’d think that, but 99% of the time nobody says anything.

At best, I get a quick meet and greet with the happy couple in plain clothes, which is usually enough to tell me how much work I’ll have to do to make her look like Kate Middleton. Nobody gives a shit how the groom looks. If it’ll take more than an hour of strategic lighting, and more than a day in After Effects to make her shine, I usually pass. If I can’t pass, for whatever reason, I’ll give an estimate so high that they pass.

It’s unfortunate, I’ve lost a lot of business this way. But, the alternative is doing my best and still producing a sub-par video of their special day. I don’t want it, they don’t want it, and it always ends badly. They’ll either give me a bad write up or refuse payment, and I have to take them to court to collect. Court is a time consuming pain in the ass, and it’s pretty awful making, “She looked like a small horse wrapped in swiss cheese,” part of the public record.

Maybe I should just get a job shooting pro baby pics at the Mall. It’s got to be easier than this: nobody ever admits they have an ugly baby.

 

Eulogy for a Friend

July 13, 2011

With death, it’s best when it’s quick and unexpected. Except when it’s not you, and you have to give a eulogy. Then, you want something long and drawn out, preferably one of those “six months to live” scenarios. I know it sounds grim, wishing pain and suffering on your friends and loved ones, but it’s really better that way: at least for you.

If you’re lucky and there’s a ticking clock situation, not only will you have time to prepare your remarks, but the deceased might even write a bucket list, which is a friggin’ eulogy gold mine. Since you’re penciled in to speak for the walking dead, chances are you’re pretty close to him/her, and you’ll be a part of at least one skydiving/running of the bulls/Burning Man/Vegas outing/trip to Amsterdam.

Aside from having a bit of fun with your pal, before they’re worm food, you’ll get some great material to work with. It won’t be the humdrum, day to day, stuff that puts people to sleep. It wont be the sentimental, I’ll miss you man, garbage that’s met with a mix of tears and pity. It’ll be something that stinks of adventure, and it’ll have that living-in-the-face-of-death, inspirational vibe that people eat up.

Of course, you’ll want to be selective about what you include. Skip over the blacking out and waking up in a puddle, bit; skip the Gilmore Girls marathon; skip the entire trip to Thailand; and definitely skip the Vegas wedding: leave that fun surprise for the will reading.

Include any stories, that you might one day tell to a chick at a bar and/or her parents. Include the most daring bits, that you’d see in a Disney film. Include anything that you did which meets the same criteria, and say they did it. Your buddy’s rotting in a damn box, he/she won’t abject. The goal is to make him/her look good, it’s not about you, dammit.

If they’re lucky (and you’re not) and they drop dead suddenly, try not to be bitter in your speech. Also, don’t try to mask your bitterness with humor by making light of the death, no matter how comical. Even if you’re certain a Darwin Award is in the mail, the funeral is, in fact, just too soon.

If the deceased was a real shit, or a bore, you’re pretty much expected to make things up. Don’t worry, even if people know you are talking out of your ass, they won’t call you on it. I mean, seriously, they have more important things on their minds than whether or not Bill worked in a soup kitchen. However, keep it reasonable. Nobody’s gonna suspend disbelief enough to accept that 300 lb Skippy climbed mount everest, or agoraphobic Martha spent a year with Green Peace. But, reading to orphans a couple times a year, maybe(?), sure, why not.

One final tip. No matter what, avoid mentioning debts. Even if your fermented friend had those six months to pay you back, it’s still considered in extremely poor taste if you try and guilt the grieving widow or strong arm the surviving mother out of the twelve bucks you are owed. Just let it go, and fill up on shrimp at the after party.

If my dad worked at the Pentagon…

June 27, 2011

 

I knock on the door, clutching her notebook full of lyrical angst.

“I’m coming,” I hear, and my mind goes there. “Hello?”

“Uh…”

“Yes?”

“Here,” I say, thrusting the notebook at her.

She takes the sweaty mess, reluctantly, but quickly notices the giant CONSPIRACY she’s written on the cover. “What the-?”

“You dropped it, by your locker.”

She eyes me suspiciously.

“I’m not stalking you, or anything, I just think you’re cute.”

“Um… Thanks?”

This is going badly. “Abort, abort,” I say into my wrist watch; instantly, Seal-Team-Seven swoops in, in a chopper, and airlifts me to safety.

Grace

June 15, 2011

She enters at Canal, well dressed for (what I’m guessing to be her) early twenties. Her perfect waistline screams of self control and an active lifestyle. Her face is pretty, almost too pretty and I’d suspect modeling if she weren’t so short. When she walks past, a hint of lilac lingers in the air.

Gracefully, she sits near the door, and opens a steaming container of street vendor fried rice. It’s probably vegetable, she has that vegan vibe, which is fine. The first bite isn’t quite savored, it’s only fried rice, but her face tells me she hasn’t eaten all day. The second bite is shoveled down, before abandoning the Styrofoam container on the seat adjacent. A hand dives into a bag, designer, either real or a well made knock-off, and she extracts a very worn iPhone. She seems nervous as her thumbs fly across the touch screen. She’s too distracted to notice that the motion of the train is rattling her plastic fork near the edge of her container. With baited breath, I watch waiting for the inevitable. It falls without a sound; it’s disappointingly anticlimactic. She puts her phone away and reaches down for another bite. Her face registers disappointment, and I can finally see a yearning hunger that nearly matches my own. She closes the lid and retrieves her phone. She pops in earbuds and listens to music while starring out the window.

She departs at the next stop; I do as well. I don’t have to follow for long: she gracefully drops the nearly full container of rice into the platform garbage can. I slow my pace and pretend to tie my shoes, while she, and the rest of the passengers, head up the stairs. An old woman in fake fur sees me reach in; she turns her head, making me invisible once again. It is vegetable fried rice, far from my favorite, but you know what they say.

on the state of my blog

June 10, 2011

Somewhere in the near past, my taste in prose, my palate if you will, became more sophisticated. It’s a splendiforous thing, really; I’ve learned to appreciate fine craftsmanship and clever wordplay, wherever I see it. I can be astonished by the elegance of a simple sentence, and floored by a well placed, utterly perfect word.

Unfortunately, my palate now exceeds my ability, and I’m unable to write anything up to my own standards (thank you Janet Reid and Rachelle Gardner for pointing this out). I don’t think I need to explain why this is a problem (or maybe I do). I feel like a young painter back from a tour of Italy, ready to put down my brush for fear that I’ll never measure up to the masters.

I’ve read that this is a common problem; that doesn’t comfort me. Erectile dysfunction is a common problem… I’ve also read that I need to keep writing, to work through it.

I’m trying.

My recent efforts yielded one marginal success (which I’ve saved), a few near misses, and many colossal failures. More often than not, I’ll write a line, stare at it intently for a few seconds/minutes, and delete it. Occasionally, I’ll add some histrionics: I’ll take my glasses off in disgust, curse in any number of languages, and/or rub my temples while staring at the wall.

This is why my blog is undernourished. If blogs were pets, the ASPCA would have broken down my door a while ago. I suppose I could post my efforts, to keep the numbers up, but I lack sufficient narcissism to post crap. Or maybe it’s ego; I don’t want to tarnish my non-existent reputation with sub-par writing. Whatever the case, I think Kurt Vonnegut was right, “Use the time of your reader in such a way that (s)he won’t feel it was wasted.”

To help me through this unbearable slump, I’ve been reading more. I’m probably still not reading as much as I should, but more. I suspect this is helping more than my failed attempts at writing. I figure, if I see enough elegant sentences, enough masterful word choices, I’ll be able to create some of my own. You know, monkey see, monkey sample. I think it will work, as long as I don’t snap my paintbrush… Dear god I hope that doesn’t count as a pun.

the American Dream

May 18, 2011

Poverty is like anything else: you get used to it. You get used to the little things first, like basic cable and using coupons. You get used to the medium things, next, like staying in on weekends, and a dashboard full of service lights. In time, even the big things become normal. You forget the last time your teeth didn’t hurt, or when you didn’t have to choose which bills to pay that month.

After a while, you might come to see it as a humble, noble, or liberating lifestyle choice. However, no matter how well you adapt, there are still moments that are unbearable. These too come in small, medium, and large.

The first time a cashier hands back your credit card, and she’s too embarrassed to say insufficient funds, is a small one. Trying to arrange five gifts under the X-Mas tree, to look like ten, is a medium one. Telling your kid, the doctor was wrong, mommy will be just fine…

They say such dramatic circumstances build character. Maybe that’s true, but I think I’d rather be comfortable. I’d rather be the boring old fuck, with a trunk full of groceries, talking to my neighbor about the weather, than the funny guy in the unemployment line.

Or wouldn’t I?

On Writing: Blog Avalanche

May 6, 2011

Up until recently, I’d spent a lot of time reading agent and writer blogs.  What I noticed is that this is counterproductive. While the advice is often good, it’s inconsistent and contradictory, which is confusing, at best.
So, I’ve taken a step away, for now.

I’ve taken that time, an extra two hours(ish) a day, and reallocated it to reading (books) and writing/editing.  This has been extremely helpful, even beyond the extra time for those very important things.  Taking a step away helped me stop being so hyper aware and self conscious of my own craft.  And once I stopped worrying so much about the prose, it got better.  Seriously.

I guess voice likes to flow organic.

The downside is that my blog is being neglected.  I will have to find time for more shorts, or whatever, in the near future.

~j